Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Of Sources and Citations: All Bets Are Off

See “Evidence Management” for an overview and links to other articles in this series.

I recently received this message (which I have edited slightly).

Dear Ancestry Insider,

In "Evidence Management in the Wild" you wrote “As does PAF, misuses the terms source and citation.” I would find it useful if you could put up the "correct" definition of those two alongside the PAF and Ancestry definitions, so I can understand the differences. I don't use those 2 for recording stuff but do use a GEDCOM based program, which may, or may not, have similar "issues". (I put “issues” in quotes not because I don't believe you, but rather because on my side of the Atlantic this sort of thing doesn't register anywhere in Family History. On the other hand being trained as a mathematician and having done data modeling, I do appreciate robust definitions)

Adrian Bruce

Dear Adrian,

I would be happy to.

Elizabeth Shown Mills taught me that wise genealogists would do well to recognize the centuries of scholarship that proceed them. Thus, for the definitions of source and citation, one need look no further than the dictionary. Back in November I did just that, augmenting the definitions from the writings of leading genealogists. (See "Genealogical Maturity Model Definitions.")

  • source – 1. the origin that supplies information.1 2. “an artifact, book, document, film, person, recording, website, etc., from which information is obtained.”2 

  • citation – 1. “citations are statements in which we identify our source or sources for…particular [information].”3 2. “a citation states where you found [the cited] piece of information.”4

  • information – 1. “knowledge obtained from investigation.”5 2. “the content of a source—that is, its factual statements or its raw data.”6

  • evidence – 1. “something that furnishes proof.”7 2. “information that is relevant to the problem.”8 3. analyzed and correlated information assessed to be of sufficient quality.9 4. “the information that we conclude—after careful evaluation—supports or contradicts the statement we would like to make, or are about to make, about an ancestor.”10

  • conclusion – 1. “a reasoned judgment.”11 2. “a decision [that should be] based on well-reasoned and thoroughly documented evidence gleaned from sound research.”12

Citation Style

For citations, the Board for the Certification of Genealogists recommends the humanities style from the Chicago Manual of Style. The humanities citation style utilizes reference notes (either footnotes or end notes) and bibliographies. Bibliographies are sometimes called source lists because they are lists that summarize all the sources used in an article, report, or work.

Reference note citations must be highly specific, citing the page level in a book or the certificate level in a vital records collection. Befitting its role as a summary, citations in a bibliography are more general. All the pages cited in a book can be summarized by citing the book. Citing a birth certificate collection is an appropriate summary for several certificate citations.

I have my own name for the information dropped from a reference note to create a citation in a bibliography. I call it locator information because it allows a researcher to locate the specific source cited by a reference note within the general source cited in a bibliography. For a book, the locator information is the page number. For a birth certificate, the locator information depends on the clerk's filing system. Are certificates filed by certificate number? Person's name? Birth date? Are new files started each year? Locator information for birth certificates involve one or more of these pieces of information, as appropriate.

PAF Meant Well

For reasons I will explain in a minute, PAF users are surprised to learn that both a reference note and an entry in a bibliography are citations. They may be likewise surprised that both a page of a book and an entire book are sources. You'll see the origin of their confusion in a moment.

Recording citations can be tedious, so programs use several ways to make it easier. Many genealogy programs exploit the fact that citations in bibliographies lack the locator information found in reference note citations. By prompting users separately for the bibliography citation and the locator information, the information in the bibliography citation doesn't have to be retyped for each reference note. Unfortunately, when prompting users separately for the bibliography citation and the locator information, PAF called the former a source and the latter a citation.


Let me summarize. PAF calls a bibliography citation a source. And it calls locator information—a portion of a reference note citation—a citation.

Let me say it another way. PAF uses source for something that is not a source and citation for something that is not a citation.

Yes, they meant well. But this error has propagated to subsequent genealogy programs (which also faced the lack of a term for locator information).

Non-genealogists use the terms source and citation and they understand one another. Genealogists use the terms and all bets are off.

     1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, online edition ( : accessed 23 November 2009), “source.”

     2. Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FNGS, FASG, FUGA, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd ed. [hereinafter, EE2] (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009), 828.

     3. Mills, EE2, 42.

     4. Patricia Law Hatcher, CG, FASG, quoted in The Source, ed. Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, 3rd ed. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006) p. 24; citing “How Do You Know?” in Producing a Quality Family History (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996), 117.

     5. Merriam-Webster, “information.”

     6. Mills, EE2, 24.

     7. Merriam-Webster, “evidence.”

     8. Mills, EE2, 822.

     9. Christine Rose,CG, CGL, FASG,, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case (San Jose, California: CR Publications, 2005), 2.

     10. The Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual, ed. Helen F. M. Leary, CG, CGL, FASG, (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2000), 8.

     11. Merriam-Webster, “conclusion.”

     12. Mills, EE2, 820.


  1. Well done and a great explanation of source and citation.

    Over at GeneaBloggers we've developed a Source Citation Reference Card which covers the different styles and has links to Elizabeth Shown Mills' books and materials.

  2. Thanks hugely for that - it now makes sense.
    It seems to me that the separate prompt (and then separate storage) of the bibliography citation and the locator information is the correct way to go but the terminology is, as you show, incorrect and potentially misleading.
    Unfortunately, if I think about putting my software designer's hat on, life gets a little tricky in trying to accommodate the various flexibilities inherent in GEDCOM. Not impossible but life would sure be easier if programs didn't have to accommodate a source record like "UK Birth Certificates". (Please guys, that's a type of source, not a source, I try to say!)

  3. Of course - just re-reading what I wrote, "UK Birth Certificates" is fine as a bibliography entry, isn't it! But having a single source record in the database for it, linked to lots of "facts", makes life difficult to find those facts when you realise one certificate is wrong and you need to find which "facts" are linked.

  4. This debate would seem to be mere “hair-splitting” by the academic community..

    In my view, as per you explanation, the argument is not about anything meaningful – merely in the labels we attach to the elements of our source material descriptions.

    PAF and associated software have set a standard that uses terminology at odds with the academic community – as per your explanation. But – so what? And why not? If the PAF style is easier to use, easier to understand, easier to implement in software – then why not depart from the standards used by academia – the hobbyist genealogist is not composing a Phd thesis subject to academic inspection.

    Additionally, I think your explanation of the PAF use of Source and Citation has been slightly skewed – I have always looked upon the use of the PAF style Source and Citation as a means of producing a total or final citation for any source material – so that the sum of the PAF Source and Citation is in fact the complete Citation.

    I would guess that if PAF had started out trying to explain the use of the Chicago Manual of Style they would have bored the common man (and woman) to such an extent that recording of sources would have been totally ignored.

    And, lest we forget, the end result is exactly the same if both styles are used correctly – the source material is correctly identified and becomes re-accessible as required – what else do you need?

    This is all a “storm in a teacup” – Sources and Citations for the common man and Bibliography and Reference Citations for the high browed academics.

    There seems to me to be no material difference.

  5. brucefuimus said...

    Of course - just re-reading what I wrote, "UK Birth Certificates" is fine as a bibliography entry, isn't it! But having a single source record in the database for it, linked to lots of "facts", makes life difficult to find those facts when you realise one certificate is wrong and you need to find which "facts" are linked.

    Sorry Bruce - "UK Birth Certificates" would not be fine as any form of source as there is no such collection.

    You might have more success with "Birth Certificate - England & Wales" or "Birth Certificates - Scotland" or "Birth Certificates - Northern Ireland" with the possiblity of additionally having "Birth Certificates - (for any of the 600 registration disticts in England and Wales)".

    PS - Going beyond PAF into its direct descendant - Ancestral Quest, you will find enhanced features in analysing and finding citations used by any of the defined sources (or did I mean Bibliography entries):-)- and all the events linked to each use of the citation - most useful.

  6. Surely, for the UK at least, any reference to a Certificate relates to a document in the possession of the holder. Certificates are documents generated from the Registers; as such, they are not held in public record collections, which comprise Registers to these events, and these Registers are generally indexed. Thus, for the UK, there are Indexes to Registers of B/M/D for England and Wales/Scotland/Northern Ireland, but no identifiable collection of certificates, even at the District Registrar level.

  7. Just to get things sorted from this side of the Atlantic...
    ""UK Birth Certificates" would not be fine as any form of source as there is no such collection" - that's true. In my defence, I was initially relating my displeasure at source-records defined at too high a level. I realised (after sending of course) that my example was sort of countered by something in the original post. I think I did ponder the difference between Scots and English-and-Welsh (no experience of N. Irish / Irish) but thought this might be getting in too deep for my intended point that rolling up individual source records for a single bibliography entry might prove useful.
    As for this being hair-splitting, I can't agree. If you're going to use someone's terminology, you ought to get it right, otherwise when you meet the people who _do_ use the terminology, you're liable to go down like a lead balloon. I know - been there, done that.
    Within the UK's family history community, apart possibly from any TMG users, I would, however, agree that the distinction between citation in PAF-speak and in the Chicago Manual of Style is irrelevant, since the number of users of CMS-compliant end/footnote formats must be minimal indeed. (And to really put the cat among the pigeons, I'd venture to suggest that it will remain so while the formats advocated need titles in quotes or italicised, and page numbers preceded by either a colon or comma - none of which is at all explanatory on reading by non-adepts. But that's for another day.)

  8. Chris’s comment on UK certificates is right in one sense – it is not the “certificates” that are archived, but the registers – any issued certificate is a “certified copy” of the entry in the register. However, the GRO’s for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have at their disposal only the transcribed copies of the original registers (think of transcription errors and omissions) which have been indexed. Each Register Office where the events were registered keeps the original registers – from which applications can be made and certificates issued (possibly seen to be potentially more accurate than the GRO copies) – with or without available indexes – although many are now being indexed to get on the genealogy band wagon.


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